Facebook as Prosthesis by Ruth Noakes
(snippet from from my dissertation when I was a student in London)
Facebook, the social networking website, was launched in 2004 by Mark Zuckerberg, Chris Hughes and Dustin Moskovitz from their dormitory room at Harvard, and within just two years it had twelve million users, which increased exponentially in 2008 with sixty-seven million users, and over fourteen million photos are uploaded daily[i]. Social networks can be seen to give people some control over projecting perceptions of themselves, and affirming current ideas of what the self consists of; ‘online social networks free us, in some sense, from the requirements of “real world” circumstances and permit us to try out various self conceptions to find ones that fit with what we would like to be’[ii]. Concedingly, Waters claims that ‘for the posthuman, there is no autonomous self that is given, because the self can only be made’[iii]
As a result of my research methodologies I was able to gather up to date, and currently relevant information to aid my case study. Therefore I needed a current media and technology example to illustrate my findings, and decided that the most prominent case within my research thus far was Facebook, because it remains somewhat mysterious and ever changing. I deem that Facebook acts as an interface, which enables common ground for people from a wide range of age groups and social backgrounds, and having gathered primary information from my participant observation, it seemed logical that this area deserved more focus and could aid me in answering the initial research question; to what extent can technology be seen as an extension of the human body or mind. If Facebook can be deemed a form of prosthesis to the human, then perhaps the same can be applied to other technologies.
Using the perspective gathered from having my own Facebook account, this primary research and participatory element should grant an accurate and detailed view of the current uses of Facebook, and the extent to which people allow it to represent them. However, I shall use other contemporary examples of human and machine interactivity to demonstrate how the ‘prosthetic impulse’[iv] affects modern society as a whole as well as in terms of individual identity.
From the detached yet directly involved perspective of my Facebook page, I was able to see why members of the focus groups I conducted spoke of how addictive they found it, and why going without technology was often mostly difficut because of the inability to connect with friends on Facebook. The Facebook ‘news feed’ updates automatically and perpetually, filling with status updates posted by my ‘friends’, including what their current actions are, who they are with, or where they are, this can be seen as ‘contributing to the creation of a permanent present whose intense pace knows no tomorrow’[v], and relates to Heidegger’s ‘presencing’ of what is present[vi], because the constant bringing forth of information, regardless of its purpose, holds meaning, a pre-existing need to share. Virilio is concerned with this speed, and need for constant information and entertainment, and deems that the distorted ‘time span is destroying the rhythms of a society which has become more and more debased’[vii]. If society is thus debased and flattened by technology, this seems to contradict the act of extending or adding prosthesis to the human self; rather Virilio seems to hint at the destruction of life as we know it.
Figure 1, (Permission from Ruairi Glynn) ‘Dancers 2008’ Emergencia Exhibition, Itau Cultural, Sao Paulo Brazil 2008.
The relation between biological matter and immaterial thought and meaning, which Merleau-Ponty explores, emphasises that our actions are not merely for survival, but shift to a figurative meaning that ‘manifests’ through bodies ‘a core of new significance: this is true of motor habits such as dancing’[viii]. Using Merleau-Ponty’s perspective, I deduce that dancing could be described as a secondary action, unnecessary for survival but elaborated or extended from our inner thoughts as a means of perceiving the outer world. A contemporary example that illustrates this ‘new significance’ is Ruairi Glynn’s ‘Performative Ecology’ project ‘Dancers 2008’[ix], as shown above in Figure 1. The Dancers, or robots, are built to intuitively react to human facial expressions, dancing in accordance to the emotions they detect through facial recognition software. They have the power to learn new dance routines as well as teaching other Dancers the movements they found to be most successful in inciting response from the human crowd. The Dancers are granted a significant degree of autonomy and intuition, yet remain dependent upon human attention, and reactive to human emotions that they cannot ever feel themselves. Similarly, Facebook seems to grow in its autonomy, as it is programmed to intuitively detect a user’s preferences; I discovered that whatever you type is detected by Facebook, which then proceeds to place advertisements on the home page, related to your words. Facebook encourages you to click ‘like’ on brand pages, and asks you to engage in polls determining your response to certain products. Facebook institutionalises culture to an extent; marketing ploys tell us to invite more friends, to perpetuate the Facebook brand. Facebook is about profit, but beneath the material profit lays meaning, of which Merleau-Ponty and Heidegger would encourage the exploration.
Niedzviecki states that ‘from Facebook to WebCams to blogs to Reality TV we are actively involved in trading our privacy for community, shared meaning’[x]; this was also the concession I gained during the focus group methodology. On the most part the older age groups claimed to use Facebook for business reasons or nostalgia, for example, some claimed it was to reconnect with lost friends or family, and reminisce on the past, whereas the younger age groups all emphasised the uses of Facebook as being for plan making, current updates and learning what events were happening in the future.
What if technology has created a secondary or tertiary impulse, which I term as one that is not primary to survival, and has thus subverted our nature? During my participatory observation I noticed that mobile phones, such as the iPhone, encourage the use of Facebook through an application that is just one button click away, and introduced a new feature whereby you can ‘check-in’ to locations. Firsthand I observed, on the news feed, a person check-in at location tagged as their home, and also tagged was the person’s girlfriend. I was shocked that someone would go to the extent of revealing their home’s location on the Internet, but also including a link to the Facebook page of their girlfriend, and publicising such a seemingly private or intimate occasion. This would indeed support the notion of extending our sense of sharing, the Internet representing an interface where sharing too much matters less than it would if it were done face-to-face, and is exemplary of Niedzviecki’s term ‘overshare’. His book ‘The Peep Diaries’, describes our recently evolved ‘Peep Culture’, where we often interact more through machines than directly, essentially spy on others, and allow ourselves to be spied upon by ‘oversharing’ personal information via networking websites; ‘Apple released the iPhone 3G, and global capitalism teetered…yet that single ungainly word, overshare, may prove to be more significant’ for we ‘ushered in a new era: the Era of Peep Culture’[xi].
But perhaps the impulse to over-share is not one of prosthesis, and instead needs a new metaphor more befitting to its context. In ‘The Prosthetic Impulse’, Sobchack recognises Kurzman’s concern regarding the use of prosthesis as a metaphor in modern anthropology[xii]. Kurzman, who is an amputee deems that theorists situate an issue, then retroactively define it using prosthesis and artificial limbs in an attempt to expand ethnographic material, and emphasises that actually it is a reductive term when thus removed from context[xiii]. I am not entirely in agreement with this, because I think a word can be reconceptualised, granted new meaning or context, without having to change the word itself. Facebook certainly extends awareness in terms of current occurrences; as a participant observer I began to learn things about my ‘friends’ which I would not otherwise have known, or would ever before have had the desire to know. Perhaps Facebook is exemplary of the desire to transcend corporeality[xiv] in the paradoxical fashion Grosz demonstrated, and is powered by our desire to share and escape into voyeuristic digital interface. From a posthuman understanding, and the admission of dependency, and interactivity on the part of my focus group members, it seems likely that Facebook acts as a form of prosthesis, in that it offers functions the body could not attain alone.